My Favourite Belfast Cocktail Bars
Which one of these is the odd one out?
Trick question….none! they are all drinks that you can expect to enjoy on a cocktail trail around the burgeoning Belfast bar scene. I would like to get a bit of the quiet little elephant in the room addressed, Sean Muldoon & Jack McGarry of Dead Rabbit NYC started their mixology careers in our very own Merchant Hotel. Under their tutelage they took The Bar at The Merchant from opening day to Worlds Best Bar, which was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the local scene is concerned.
From The Albany to Voodoo, the scene is far from a shrinking violet, with both innovation and perfection being never-too-far-away. I have my favourites amongst the established venues and hopefully you’ll find your preferred shebeen too.
1) Filthy Chic at The Filthy Quarter
(45 Dublin Road, Belfast – 02890 246823)
Built on the site of some fairly well established predecessors…Dempseys & Pips International, “Filthy’s” has tapped in to the affluent student scene, becoming a real taste-maker in the hospitality scene, what Filthy’s does next will be what many other bars in town will imitate. The venue itself is split up into 4 distinct sections, with arguably the greatest beer garden in town sitting at the heart of the premises. Filthy Chic was a later addition to the business, with its own separate street access, and a design brief of “budget bright white” it is in no way trying to wow you with its style, more relying on the fashion and style of its customers to do the talking. The drinks list is not particularly exhaustive (although it is elusive…I had to wait for the management to piece together more copies prior to my selection) but the menu is particularly well orchestrated, 4 or 5 drinks in each alcohol section, preferring the rum-gin-vodka format as opposed to the slightly trendier slings-flips-fizzes motif. I’m a rum and fruity fan above all else, so my favourite is the Triple Rum Punch (£7.00 -Bacardi White, Bacardi Oro, Myers, Orgeat, Pineapple Juice, Orange Juice) An uncomplicated but educated combination of rums with a well judged level of juice dilution.
I also am partial to a Thigh High (£6.50 – Eristoff, Malibu, Martini Rosso, Lime, Oregeat, Pomegranate, Apple Juice) I’m of the opinion that sweet vermouth may be a barman`s greatest ingredient, so when used wisely, it’s like a magnet for my lips. The drinks are made with minimal frills by staff that know their stuff. Not that there is anything wrong with a barman subtlety checking a recipe cheat card once in a while, it is good to see when they don’t… The beautiful beer garden is a perfect environment on a warm summers day to sit with a long drink and a book watching the shadows pass, or in winter there are multiple fire pits to help keep the cold at bay,well thought out drinks in a well thought out bar from well trained staff. There are a few better places in town, but this is definitely worth a stop off.
2) The Albany
(701-703 Lisburn Road, Belfast – 02890 664442) Less than a year old, The Albany came in with all guns blazing (not a phrase to be taken lightly in this town…), a massive refurb on the previous Lilys, sitting in the über middle class Upper Lisburn Road (Dahling), Belfast`s answer to Knightsbridge, so to keep the local clientele appeased, it had to promise big and deliver big. It certainly has a big impact on walking in the door, with velvet curtains larger than David Beckham’s circa 1997. The decor is classy and refined but I don’t drink chandeliers or gigantic mirrors, the cocktails are what I came for and you should too. I went for a Hemingway Daiquiri £7.95 (ordered off list), my go-to drink to gauge how bar-clever the staff are, as easy to get right as it is to get wrong, balance and subtlety are key players. This was Spot On. I told the bartender that I have a sweeter preference than average and asked if he could adjust accordingly, he upped the maraschino liqueur a dram and brought it to exactly where I wanted it.
The Paloma (£7.50 – Cazadores Blanco, Agave Tequila, Agave Sec, Grapefruit Sherbet, Fresh Citrus, House-Made Aerated Grapefruit Soda) is definitely recommended by the bar staff and by myself also, after a trip to Cuba left me as a rum lover, agave sec hits those same sweet sensitive taste buds I love to please, I actively dislike grapefruit so I was intrigued to see if the combination could work for me. The grapefruit sherbet just buds enough bitterness to cut through the sweetness, the “aerated grapefruit soda” was lost a little bit on me, I think other mixers could split this just as well, a soda or a bitter lemon. This is where The Albany falls down a little bit for me, it tried to guild the lily. My Paloma had a Smoked Salt rim, which is reflected throughout the list, Camomile Foam, Macerated Pineapple, Mace Infused Cream…I have no objection to these more progressive ingredients and techniques, but when the base spirits are “basic” rather than premium (Bacardi, Bombay Sapphire, Hennessey) it feels a little over compensatory. What they do, they do very well, but I feel they could do it greatly instead.
3) Love & Death
(10a Ann Street, Belfast. – 02890 247222) Widely regarded as Belfasts cocktail Mecca, after The Merchant, an unassuming entrance between a pizzeria and a budget chemist, up a narrow stairway and into the heart of hipsterdom. With a cocktail list in the guise of a 20+ page comic/graphic novel, tough to decipher and with barely any recognisable cocktail options. L&D seems insecure, the staff are all dressed as a Jack McGarry tribute band, the drinks are almost all originals, with massive amount of home made syrups, bitters, tinctures & potions (I would HATE to do their prep work for a busy shift…) this says to me that they don’t want their concoctions to be compared like-for-like with anywhere else, it also tries to say “we’re so great we don’t need the classic cocktails” the staff are surly, the tables and floorboards are missing sections, the service is lacklustre, the “decor” is minimalist retro, there are some drinks in their “graphic novel” that sound so garish & horrific that I wouldn’t challenge myself to try them (Berrito – essentially a mojito with a Berocca dropped in it) I would expect the bar staff to know page 42 of The Savoy Cocktail Book but I’m not sure they could have a conversation about every day topics…like a good bartender should…
But despite all of this, you simply should visit Love & Death because they make some absolutely fantastic drinks, truly wonderful. Their staff might not know the score of last nights match but they have an instinct, not a skill, when it comes to constructing a delicate beverage. Sol Ardiente (£6.00 – Bacardi, homemade pineapple & pink peppercorn purée, pineapple syrup, lime juice, lime cordial, L&D bitters mix #1. Egg white, sugar) that is a lot of ingredients and could go easily awry, but it is perfect, getting rum as smooth and creamy as this with a light sweet & spice coming from the purée, is not simple….it’s incredibly tough, and these aren’t just pint slingers, they are cocktail automatons and that’s just grand as long as the drinks remain this good.
4) The Bar at The Merchant
If you are in Belfast and feel like enjoying your time here, go to The Merchant. Yes, it is in luxury surrounding with such opulent finery to make most average joes such as myself look awkwardly at the front door and say “maybe another day, I don’t think I’m dressed for it….” I have never felt out of place in the bar here. I can go straight after work with my rucksack on my back and feel just as comfortable sitting over a Mint Julep (£9.95 – Woodford Reserve, Mint, Cane Syrup, Still Water) as I would in any sports bar cheering on the Sunday. Which, by the way, is the finest Mint Julep in all the lands, it tastes as heavenly as it looks, garnished to within an inch of too much, and then stopped right at the precipice of the excessive, likewise the Nui Nui (£9.95 – Havana Anejo, Piemento Dram, Lime & Orange Juice, Cane Syrup, Sugarcane Molasses) These are staff at the very top of their game. You can see why Muldoon & McGarry started out here, and the legacy that remains.
The bar top adorned with understated condiment bottles of all colours, the house syrups and bitters, not given some fancy name…just there to be used and replaced as required. Every single detail is top notch, ice cool stainless steel straws, sized according to the great range of glassware, with a spoon head for scooping out the toasted marshmallow from my Piña Colada (£9.95 – Bacardi Gold, Myers Dark, House-Made Pineapple & Coconut Mix, Fresh Cream, Pineapple Juice, Aromatic Bitters)… I’ve had one from the Hemingway Hotel in Havana, this was up there, only beaten on the strength of the cigar that was in my hand that fine Caribbean day. The list is almost famous in itself, it aspires to the bygone days when hotels like The Waldorf Astoria, The Savoy & The Grosvenor published their cocktail books almost as a business in their own right. I truly think this cocktail list should be a must-own for all aspiring mixologists, not just listing the drink, but with the history, the reasoning, the variations… Whilst not a drink I would go for, my partner swears that her Grasshopper could be used to teach future generations what a cocktail can aspire to be. The Bar at The Merchant has won best cocktail bar and cocktail drinks list, for a very good reason…it is a world beater, and it’s right on my doorstep.
(12-14 Church Lane, Belfast 02890 332445) A beautiful little hideaway that wouldn’t look out of place in Carnaby Street, London. Well know for it’s Gin selection, international favourites and bespoke local creations, the cocktail list is far from large and frankly some of them are disappointing, but the Gin concoctions are worth stopping for, if only to see what can be done with the most gentrified of spirits.
Aether & Echo
(11 Lower Garfield Street, Belfast – 02890 239163) Sister bar to Love & Death, this is probably the most innovative of Belfast’s cocktail bars, attempting to herald the days of prohibition but mainly just looking like a Madame Tussaud’s version of Dead Rabbit NYC. Some of their cocktails are outlandishly brilliant but some are abominations, worth a risk if you like experimenting.
(59-63 Botanic Ave, Belfast – 02890 509800) A favourite amongst the student set, just round the back of Queens University in the Botanic area. Friday afternoons are particularly jam-packed as £3 each for all non champagne cocktails is tough to beat. Admittedly the brands on offer aren’t premium and some of the staff aren’t exactly on point when it comes to measuring…and mixing, but for that price, some of the drinks really are diamonds in the rough. Try the Tropical Cosmo and be thankful you get change from a fiver and a pretty decent drink too !